First things first, what follows are just impressions from one Aussie in a few weeks in Lao. Like that great Australian poem written by a talented drunkard Banjo Patterson, Clancy of the Overflow, they are written With a thumb nail dipped in tar And clancy’s gone droven and We don’t know where he are. Actually I’m in Ventiane, but it is a big place compared to the other places we have been and I get lost easy. Particularly “droven”.
I have written before of the historic sandwich this country finds itself in, the utter devastation rained down by the Americans aided by their close allies such as Australia. And the French before this, the Japanese in between and historically the Thais, Burmese and Vietnamese. That is a lot for a little country to be sandwiched into. No wonder Lao is one of the poorest countries in the world.
Sadly, it would appear their government is beset by ideological, sexual (old blokes abound) and cultural limitations. This remains a communist totalitarian, centralised (although there have been recent moves to decentralise in the last couple of years), backward looking, fear racked military dominant system- now that’s a lot characteristics for a small nation.
Recent market based practices, including joining the WTO, give some comfort.
There are some indications of unrest with the current government system and players- some violent, most passive. Symbols of startling priority mix ups are the huge and resplendent “president’s palace”, a major contradiction in a poor communist country and their version of the Arc de Triomphe. There are some delicious ironies in the latter. It is a just little bigger than the French original and was built with concrete gifted by America for a runway.
Today I visit three museums in Vientiane. What Joy!
1) the National Museum
2) the Army Museum
3) the Police Museum (housed in a building second to the old Pres’ digs). This has been rebadged People’s Security Museum- a bit like our border security. Comfort generated by aggressive branding, actually stoking fear and thereby creating the case for more security. A closed circle of self-perpetuation.
Many traveller’s criticise these museums for their basic layouts and jingoistic feel. I think these very same features are part of the charm and tell their own story.
There is a strong similarity (naturally) with Vietnam’s Museums. Tortured and downright hilarious English abounds, but at least an effort is made. Great victories are celebrated in minute detail in individual battles with foreign, imperialist, fascist and facile forces. If history is written by the victors, here it writ large, and with (I think) a local audience in mind. The message: We have thrown out inferior governments with superior weapons by close cooperation (note ideology). Let’s use the same in the future. There are bad things out there. Trust us. Not much different to the Yanks: “In God we trust”. Here you substitute God with Party. Marx’s religion is the opium of the people, applies equally to one state dogma.
This is a country that has lived (survived!) very serious conflict.
I am surprised to see artifacts of the war with “the extreme rightest Thai army” in 1980. This is new to me. A little delicate digging and I find a few details. This is not easy as there is some suspicion of falangs (us whities). With some justification I swiftly add. Uniforms abound in these places. I find one-on-one, out of earshot and view, leadng with sincere questions, indicating some knowledge and demonstrating sympathy/support to the Lao people works well.
– this was a border dispute, not surprisingly set up by a corrupt self serving colonial (French) legacy of poor border definition
-it started with Thais invading Lao
– it was no small deal
– at least a thousand people were killed
– the Americans supported the Thais and the Vietnamese (maybe Chinese??) supported the Lao’s. This could have been soo much bigger.
– the Thais got flogged. They were poorly trained and led. Some commentators believe that despite great pomp, sabre rattling and internal muscle flexing, this remains the case. Too many old men with their fingers in the wrong places and snouts deeply in troughs that are not theirs to gorge.
-a treaty was swiftly arranged when the emboldened (and I feel supported??) Lao army contemplated taking a chunk of Thailand
-a strong army, “People’s Security”, Vietnam and membership of ASEAN are part of the defence strategy for Lao
I meet a delightful policeman in full kit at their museum.
For some reason, I am in this giant palace all by myself- not accounting for twenty armed and bored looking officers. I try not to be paranoid as my new friend stood very very close beside me throughout the three stories of displays. We strike up an interesting conversation, I think assisted by demonstrating my police bona fides.
– ice is a problem
– opium has reduced
– illegal logging and gold mining is a worry
– organised crime is a China problem. Not so here! I am sceptical of the claim
-terrorism doesn’t exist, but “we” are fighting “insurgents”. These turn out to be local terrorists who, true to the moniker, are blowing up stuff and generally being a little unreasonable
-these same dudes are supported by mysterious outsiders
– I learn elsewhere the insurgents include the Hmong people, and like Myanmar there is serious suppression of some of the minorities, threat of a civil war, great secrecy in the operations and this is a definite no go zone for Falangs physically and conversationally.
-the Lao people are prepared for the “others”
– the top three ranks (all old blokes) have separate/distinct tailored shoes to designate importance and rank because this is very important
I roll the dice and ask: who are you most fearful of?
This brings forth sudden confusion of English to Lao meaning where thus far none existed.
Awkward. A moment. Tension.
On exit my genial host suggests that he is not experienced with foreigners and Next time I (great emphasis) would like to ask you (great emphasis) the questions.
I welcome the enquiry, countering: Please feel free to ask what you like. There is a wonderful haunting hanging moment of silence. I suspect my host is uncomfortable- I’m damn sure I am. He gathers himself and proffers: What is your name?
We exchange first names, shake hands (across times and cultures). I think it is prudent I leave.
I am sure to provide a reasonable donation in the box provided at the exit.
(Aka- not the gun, the power of the pen- Clancy)